Nestled in the northwestern mountainous region of Svaneti is a small but increasingly popular town named Mestia. Despite this growing popularity, legions of travelers that come through Tbilisi to witness the beauty of Georgia do so without ever hearing about this mountain paradise. While this may be due to the length of travel and occasional difficulty in finding adequate or comfortable transportation, these are hardly a price to pay for such an amazing excursion.
Mestia has become a de facto capital of Upper Svaneti due to its size and services. Historically, mention of its locals, the Svans, dates back to Ancient Greek and Roman sources. One of the most iconic images of the town is the stone towers shooting up from the sprawling homes under them. Many of these towers are old enough to have most likely been standing for longer than the modern concept of the Georgian republic.
Reaching the town is an exciting adventure for those willing to sacrifice some small comforts to achieve an authentic Georgian traveling experience. There are two widely accepted methods of reaching the first checkpoint in the journey, Zugdidi. The first is by train, and the second is by using the common and popular Georgia marshrutka (minibus). While each has their advantages and disadvantages, they will achieve the same end.
For the train, purchasing a ticket can be done online and the ticket sent via email. Upon having your ticket scanned at the station, you’ll be assigned a wagon and left to find a seat. Settle in, as it is a lengthy ride. The comfort is not impressive, but the views you’ll be rewarded with along the way are something you may not want to sleep through.
Marshrutka travel is often avoided by the more upscale travelers, as it can be quite rudimentary in nature. Seats are small and packed in tight quarters, the driver’s music selection may not be to your liking, and stopping for restroom breaks is unlikely. However, they often travel at speeds that get you to Zugdidi quicker than the train, which stops at a multitude of stations along the way.
Arriving in Zugdidi, be it the train station or any of the marshrutka stops, is largely uneventful. The city offers some sights should you want to stay and explore, including a botanical garden, several notable restaurants, and a museum. Otherwise, the marshrutka to Mestia is often near the center of the city adjacent to the bridge of the Chkhoushi River. Be prepared to wait, as the drivers often wait until they have sufficient passenger numbers to warrant the journey.
This next leg of the trip is amazing. Once you climb into the mountainous areas, the views are truly impressive. Craning your neck upward to see the peaks around you, you’ll also pass multiple small cafes and villages. Occasionally, drivers will stop at these to allow you to get a drink, snacks, and a moment of respite. And you will want your camera or phone ready, as the approach to Mestia is truly beautiful.
Marshrutkas coming into Mestia will stop near the center of the town, Seti Square. This area is the more built-up and tourist-centric section of the town. Restaurants, fine hotels, and shopping surround the square. Despite it being a very tourist-y action to take, several of the restaurants in the area are must-visits due to the homemade cuisine and traditional wine. The views in virtually every direction are more than picture worthy as you dine in the valley.
The selection of accommodation ranges from simple home hostels, hosted by local families happy to bring you in and even cook a hearty meal for you, to upscale boutique hotels with all the comfort and amenities of the large cities. For those looking for something even more unique, there lies in the mountains to the east a small village named Heshkili. Here, there is a family-owned and operated hostel that has some of the best homemade food and dining experiences overlooking vast valleys and mountain ranges. Staying here is slightly more “Spartan” than the hotels back in the valley, but the services the family render are more than adequate to some.
The area is famous for its renowned hiking trails and mountaineering. Near the town square, there are multiple shops and kiosks that offer maps and guides, when available. In addition, many of the trails in the area are available on mobile apps such as Maps.me. It should be noted than many of these trails are more for the intermediate or advanced hikers, but there are also trails for those looking for something more leisurely.
For the more history and culturally interested travelers, there are old churches with frescoes and artifacts, a museum with an extensive collection of interesting exhibits, and some of the historic towers in the town are occasionally open to visitors. Nightlife in the town is surprisingly vivid for Mestia’s size, particularly during the busier seasons. Restaurants and wine bars will often host local music performances or special events.
Upon the conclusion of your time in Mestia, the central square is where you’ll find marshrutkas that will take you back to Zugdidi or even straight to Tbilisi if needed. Just as with the journey into the valley, the exit is also a view to remember. For those going directly to Tbilisi, while the journey may be long, the drivers will stop on occasion to give you a break. On one occasion, the driver even stopped at a restaurant for the travelers to sit and have a meal.
The adventure into the mountains is one that can be recommended to virtually all travelers, as there is something to be had for everyone. From the more pampered traveler to the hardened backpacker, Mestia offers an experience that will certainly be unique. Even with regards to cost, you can spend as much or as little as possible, often as low as the equivalent of $100, and still enjoy your time there.
Many people even make multiple trips to the town, returning in different seasons to add more intrigue. The aforementioned trails lead to smaller villages that offer their own unique, rustic, and exciting experiences to the voyage.
Overall, Mestia is a place that should be added to any travelers list. In addition to the resources available from official travel sources, the internet has a growing community of those that have made the trek and shared their experience, as well as inside tips on what and how to enjoy Mestia as much as possible.